I can't pretend the nasty word "rapist" wasn't rattling around in the back of my head as we waited for Roman Polanski's aged elfin visage to appear on the Roxie's screen on Saturday afternoon. There is an uncomfortable mix of admiration and revulsion that comes into play whenever Polanski enters a conversation. Looking at Polanski's life as a whole, one faces an intermittent series of horrors, the likes of which would make James Ellroy blanch. Yet his achievements as a filmmaker are vast, and the rarity with which he appears before American audiences made this event far too big an opportunity to pass up. (Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine said the last such occasion was 13 years ago.) Despite his transgressions, when Polanski's face appeared live via the magic of Skype after a screening of Chinatown on Saturday afternoon, the ovation was almost astonishing -- and free of the sound of protest.
(There was one woman standing outside the Roxie's box office, distributing flyers that outlined the 1978 rape case; she was not ignored, but we had expected more than a solo protester.)
Producer Thom Mount, who was at the Roxie to moderate the Q&A with Polanski, pointed out right up front that we were there to celebrate Polanski's films, and the questions came entirely from him, so there was no opportunity for audience members to press the 79-year-old auteur with more salacious inquiries.
Chinatown was screened from a Blu-ray disc ("FedEx fucked up," programmer Lavine told the crowd; he had expected to run a 35mm print), but it looked good nonetheless. (The disc sports a flawlessly restored image.) Polanski discussed the origins of the film, saying that Robert Towne's first draft was nearly 200 pages. He also characterized the film as a true collaboration among the four key figures: himself, writer Towne, producer Robert Evans (who also happened to be head of production at Paramount at the time), and star Jack Nicholson, for whom Towne expressly wrote the part of J.J. Gittes.
Mount observed that Polanski's career has been marked by outstanding performances by actresses: Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, Nastassja Kinski in Tess -- and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. Polanski said that in each case, he'd enjoyed good working relationships with those women, with the exception of Dunaway. At one point on the set of Chinatown, Dunaway was backlit and a single rogue hair would not stay put on her expertly coiffed head. After several unsuccessful attempts to tame it, Polanski approached the actress and yanked it out. "This sent her into a crisis," Polanski recalled mournfully.
Given the late hour (nearly midnight in Paris), Polanski signed off after about half an hour. It was, in the end, too short of a chat for such an accomplished filmmaker, yet still illuminating -- and we certainly counted ourselves among the lucky few present for this rare occasion.